‘Hot food, cold beer, bikini-ed women seeking relief from the insufferable prison of motherhood—there’s a lot of pleasures to be had at the park, Frank.’
Dennis Reynolds, everyone.
‘The Gang Goes To A Water Park’
Generally speaking, episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia come in two flavors. You have the once-in-a-while high concept numbers which sometimes turn musical—‘The Nightman Cometh’, ‘The Gang Cracks The Liberty Bell’, and last week’s ‘The Gang Turns Black’—and then you have the much more frequent, ‘let’s just throw the gang into a relatively common, down to earth-type situation and see what horrors trail in their wake’ stories. The first two episodes of season 12 have been emblematic of both sides of the Sunny experience, with this week’s much more banal offering countering the ambitious, thematically resonant premiere.
Yes, the gang decide to visit a water park. That most innocent and wholesome of amusement park types. Let it be said from the outset, however, that though the setting may be banal, the hijinks that ensue are anything but. Even as the gang are queuing at the gates to the park (and fretting about illnesses and contaminations) they are already laying out their plans of attack. Frank and Charlie—who is fully kitted out in swim gear and disappointed that no-one is querying it—aim to speed their way through every ride at the park in one day, besting that loser guide which claims there are enough rides for three days. Mac and Dee just wanna get a quick go on their favorite ride before all the inevitable pee contamination happens. And Dennis? Well, Dennis is there for the aforementioned trifecta of treats as outlined at the top of this post.
Following the rules of screenwriting then we pretty much know from the outset: this is gonna get messy. Like, pee messy. Like, Dennis cruising his way either to uncontainable rage or jail. Like, whatever wild card scenario Frank and Charlie will create and/or encounter. (Charlie’s excited exhortations for everyone to ‘keep quiet!’ as the water park staff approach to open for the day elicit a confused reaction from Dennis and give us another glimpse at whatever set of rules he thinks the world operates by.)
So the gang go on their separate ways through the park. Mac ditching his shoes and immediately forgetting about them as he and Dee race towards their destination ride (‘The Titty Twister’) serving as perfect a visual metaphor for what’s to follow. As they prepare to bomb down the tube ride, the attendant (David Benioff!) informs them of the rules and regulations that are in place for their safety, only to be swiftly shut down, called a nerd, and for his advice to be disregarded. (Benioff’s line reading of ‘I don’t give a shit’ got a genuine guffaw out of me and might be one of the best lines in the episode. The other competitor, incidentally, is his co-Game Of Thrones creator, David Weiss near the end). Sure enough, Mac and Dee get trapped in the tube, partly thanks to Mac’s triple-laminated park wristband that he’s been using for over a decade to get in for free. People getting stuck in an amusement park tube ride is not exactly the freshest premise, and I wasn’t sold on it initially, but the verve with which McElhenny and Olson (especially Olson, constantly shaking her gradually reddening pee-content water testing tube) react to their predicament means it mostly lands by the end. Benioff’s attendant disinterestedly sending in child after child, oblivious or uncaring about the mounting safety hazard, is the icing on the cake.
Frank an Charlie soon find themselves also blocked, albeit in their quest to speed through every ride. The lines are just too long, and way too slow. Just hearing them lament their frustrations, you know that there is a desperate scheme in danger of being hatched. The members of the gang are like rats. You corner them at your own risk. After a brief spell of confusion regarding Charlie’s misunderstanding of maps and the concept of North they spy a boy with leukaemia and his carer passing them by in the queue, heading for the front thanks to a special program for children in his condition. The look on Danny DeVito’s face as the lightbulb goes off in Frank’s head is pure It’s Always Sunny gold—the dread and anticipation we feel as we wait the extra second for the smash cut is something that this show has perfected over more than a decade of honing its craft. And, sure enough: BOOM! Cut! and then ‘AIDS! I got the AIDS!’ bellows Frank as he and Charlie jostle their way to the front of that queue, and then every other queue. That’s pretty much it for their story in this episode, and it’s a credit to the show’s visuals and the finely tuned crudity of the delivery that watching a montage of DeVito and Charlie Day sliding down waterslides, flipping people off, and carrying on about AIDS does not get boring or feel like a disposable component. (It helps that Frank and Charlie seems to derive so much incredible joy just from sharing their experiences together, which we can’t help but be infected by. Anyone still in doubt about this being the best relationship on television needs to see the Gruesome Twosome sliding down a waterslide, joyfully screaming, holding hands like otters.) Actually, I lied when I said that that was pretty much it for Frank and Charlie’s story. There is hidden craft here, as always with Sunny, and the fact that Frank has been walking around the whole park loudly proclaiming that he has AIDS all day leads to the virtuoso payoff at the climax: having scraped the skin of his back sliding down an un-watered slide, Frank delivers a colossal infusion of blood into the common pool at the bottom. This leads to one of best examples of Sunny’s signature bedlams as children and parents alike panic and scream about AIDS blood in the water—-cue David Weiss’s phenomenally deadpan delivery of: ‘AIDS. Everybody out.’—and Mac uses the opportunity to swim down to the bottom and sit on the water suction vent, leading to one of the most memorable ending shots in the show’s history.
It’s Always Sunny has this wonderful skill of uniting its disparate plot strands into one cacophonous explosion of madness, and ‘AIDS blood in the pool’ stands tall and proud alongside the arrival of social services just as it looks like dumpster baby is about to be chopped with a trash sword, and the Jew Lawyer (‘Not Jewish’) getting his eye pecked out by Royal McPoyle.
It’s impossible to pick a favourite in a cast of characters this horribly compelling, but for a long time now Dennis would be the name on my lips if I had a gun to my head. Glenn Howerton’s command of his expressions and body language, his complete immersion in the psychopathic, insecure madness that powers his character, make him an amazing presence to behold. As exciting and fun as it is to watch Dennis rage and unleash every time, however, it could also easily become a bit of a writer’s crutch. At the outset of ‘The Gang Goes To The Water Park’, you think you have a pretty definitive idea of where things are going, but instead the show, to its immense credit, completely pulls the rug out from underneath us and shows us a side to Dennis that we have never seen before: a caring mentor figure side. Sure, his mentoring mostly involves showing a twisted, brilliant con-girl who interrupts his outrageously lie-filled manipuflirting a few more tricks of the con trade, but he seems to genuinely form an almost paternal type of bond with her as they traipse around the park, relieving people of their money and possessions. The con-girl, Abby (played perfectly by Jayden Bartels), is a brilliant creation, and if Benioff and Weiss didn’t recruit her immediately to play Lyanna Mormont’s cousin then they are fools. Howerton and her have excellent chemistry, playing off each other deftly and their arc is the best part of ‘The Gang Goes To A Water Park’. Watching it unfold I had no idea how it would conclude, but to end it with Dennis being out-conned and realising it via a Usual Suspects-style flashback sequence was a stroke of genius. His brief twisted rapport with Abby and her subsequent betrayal is done so well that it almost overshadows the revelation that Dennis is apparently in possession of Jedi mind powers now. Almost. Because nothing can really overshadow that.
Except the fact that Mac and Dee almost certainly drowned a little boy by slinging his unconscious body down a water slide and straight into a pool. That kind of takes the cake. In an episode that eschews dealing with big themes in favour of smaller, sillier, character-centred laughs, the gang still ended up leaving the floating corpse of a child in their wake.
But, hey, at least the exchange between Dennis and Charlie as their quest paths briefly cross is a real moment of beauty. ‘You guys doing an AIDS thing?’, ‘Yeah. You doing a fake daughter thing?’ Perfection.
Petr Knava lives in London and plays music